Eyeing Terrorist Potential, Pentagon Seeks Vaccine Against Cold War-Era Bioweapon

"Q-fever" bacteria are seen through a laboratory microscope as they grow inside a biological cell. The U.S. Defense Department plans next week to lead a discussion with potential developers of a new vaccine against the possible bioterrorism agent.
National Journal
Diane Barnes, Global Security Newswire
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Diane Barnes, Global Security Newswire
Nov. 27, 2013, 10:02 a.m.

WASH­ING­TON — The U.S. De­fense De­part­ment is get­ting set to push for a new vac­cine against “Q-fever” bac­teria, an agent with a repu­ta­tion as a po­ten­tial ter­ror­ism tool ac­quired in part through its his­tory as a gov­ern­ment-made bio­lo­gic­al weapon.

The Pentagon’s De­fense Threat Re­duc­tion Agency is plan­ning an on­line for­um on Dec. 5 to fa­cil­it­ate con­ver­sa­tion with po­ten­tial de­velopers of a vac­cine against Q fever, which is also known by the bac­teria’s form­al des­ig­na­tion, Cox­i­ella bur­netii.

The United States in­vest­ig­ated the agent’s war­fare po­ten­tial and the So­viet Uni­on fully weapon­ized it dec­ades ago, long be­fore both coun­tries form­ally de­nounced bio­lo­gic­al arms in the 1970s. The dis­ease also oc­curs in nature and has af­fected hun­dreds of U.S. troops de­ployed over­seas.

It can pro­duce fever, pneu­mo­nia, and nu­mer­ous oth­er symp­toms as­so­ci­ated with a vari­ety of patho­gens.

Cer­tain an­ti­bi­ot­ics are con­sidered ef­fect­ive against the bac­teria, but no vac­cine is presently sold in the United States, ac­cord­ing to the Fed­er­a­tion of Amer­ic­an Sci­ent­ists. An ex­ist­ing vac­cin­a­tion avail­able abroad re­portedly can cause side ef­fects such as abs­cesses and swollen joints.

The United States “should def­in­itely have a Q fever vac­cine,” Amesh Adalja, a seni­or as­so­ci­ate with the Cen­ter for Health Se­cur­ity at the Uni­versity of Pitt­s­burgh Med­ic­al Cen­ter, said in a phone in­ter­view. “This is still a dis­ease that has some pub­lic health bur­den, in ad­di­tion to its po­ten­tial use as a bioweapon.”

The U.S.-led oc­cu­pa­tion of Ir­aq led to roughly 200 “acute” Q-fever cases among U.S. sol­diers, the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion re­por­ted earli­er this year.

Those in­fec­tions ap­peared to res­ult from un­in­ten­tion­al ex­pos­ure to an­im­al car­ri­ers or bac­teria swept up by heli­copter ro­tors. Such nat­ur­ally oc­cur­ring cases rarely cause death, but Adalja sug­ges­ted the agent could prove more dan­ger­ous if in­cor­por­ated in a weapon.

Q-Fever bac­teria in­fec­ted but re­portedly did not kill any con­scien­tious war ob­ject­ors de­lib­er­ately ex­posed to the agent dur­ing U.S. Army ex­per­i­ments in the 1950s.

The United States has been eye­ing a new Q-fever vac­cine for sev­er­al years. However, the agent’s status as a po­ten­tial bi­o­ter­ror­ism tool is fairly new, re­l­at­ive to how long it has been an es­tab­lished bio­lo­gic­al weapon. CDC of­fi­cials only began track­ing Q-fever in­fec­tions in 1999, as the Clin­ton ad­min­is­tra­tion was in­creas­ing the na­tion’s fo­cus on bio­lo­gic­al ter­ror­ism as a na­tion­al-se­cur­ity threat.

A CDC list of po­ten­tial bi­o­ter­ror­ism agents and dis­eases, which in­cludes Q fever, “is de­rived al­most solely from the U.S. and So­viet bioweapons pro­grams,” Adalja said. He sug­ges­ted that the U.S. gov­ern­ment is “sub­stan­tially” more likely to fund de­vel­op­ment of vac­cines and treat­ments for such agents than for patho­gens nev­er in­volved in gov­ern­ment bio­lo­gic­al-weapons pro­grams.

Agents more than dan­ger­ous than Q-fever may have emerged since the Cold-War height of the U.S. and So­viet bio­lo­gic­al-weapons pro­grams, but the es­tab­lished track re­cord of his­tor­ic­al bio­lo­gic­al arms could make them par­tic­u­larly at­tract­ive to would-be bi­o­ter­ror­ists, Adalja said.

This art­icle was pub­lished in Glob­al Se­cur­ity News­wire, which is pro­duced in­de­pend­ently by Na­tion­al Journ­al Group un­der con­tract with the Nuc­le­ar Threat Ini­ti­at­ive. NTI is a non­profit, non­par­tis­an group work­ing to re­duce glob­al threats from nuc­le­ar, bio­lo­gic­al, and chem­ic­al weapons.

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